During the eighties, the Supreme Court of India introduced the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The apex court gave all individuals in the country and the newly formed consumer groups or social action groups, an easier access to the law, and introduced in their work a broad public interest perspective.
Public Interest Litigation, popularly known as PIL, can be broadly defined as litigation in the interest of that nebulous entry: the public in general. Prior to the 1980s, only the aggrieved party could knock the doors of justice personally and seek remedy for its grievance and any other person, who was not personally affected, could not approach the judiciary as a proxy for the victim or the aggrieved party. In other words, only the affected parties had the locus standi (standing required in law) to file a case and pursue the litigation and the non-affected persons had no locus standi to do so. And as a result, there was hardly any link between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Indian Union and the laws made by legislature, on one hand and the vast majority of illiterate citizens, on the other.
However, this scenario gradually changed when the past emergency Supreme Court tackled the problem of ‘access to justice’ by people through the radical changes and alterations made in the requirements of locus standi and of party aggrieved. The splendid efforts of Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer were instrumental in this juristic revolution of the eighties to convert the apex court of India into a Supreme Court for all Indians. As a result, any citizen of India or any consumer group or social action group can approach the apex court of the country, seeking legal remedies in all cases, where the interests of general public or a section of public are at stake. Further, public interest cases could be filed without incurring heavy court fees, as required in private civil litigations.
In Public Interest Litigation, vigilant citizens of the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy, because there is only a nominal fixed court fee involved in this. further, through the so-called PILs, the litigants can focus attention on and achieve results pertaining to larger public issues, especially in the fields of human rights, consumer welfare and environment. However, the development of PIL has also uncovered its pitfalls and drawbacks. As a result, the apex court itself has been compelled to lay down certain guidelines to govern the management and disposal of the PILs. the abuse of PIL is also increasing along with its extended and multifaceted use. Of late, many of PIL activists in the country have found the PIL as a handy tool of harassment, since frivolous cases could be filed without investment of heavy court fees, and deals could then be negotiated with the victims of stay orders obtained in the so-called PILs.
Just as a weapon, meant for defense can be used equally effectively for offence, the lowering of the locus standi requirement has permitted privately motivated interests to pose as public interests. The abuse of PIL has become more rampant than its use and genuine causes either receded to the background or began to be viewed with the suspicion generated by spurious causes mooted by privately motivated interests in the disguise of the so-called public interests. With the view to regulating the abuse of PIL, the apex court itself has framed certain guidelines (to govern the management and disposal of the PILs). The court must be careful to see that the petitioner, who approaches it, is acting bona fide and not for personal gains, private profit or political or other oblique considerations. The court should not allow its process to be abused by politicians or others to delay legitimate administrative action or to gain political objectives. Political pressure groups, who could not achieve their aims thought the administrative process or political process, may try to use the courts (through the means of PILs) to further their closely vested aims and interests.
There may be cases where the PIL may affect the right of persons not before the court, and therefore in shaping the relief the court must invariably take into account its impact on those interests and the court must exercise greatest caution and adopt procedure ensuring sufficient notice to all interests likely to be affected. At present, the court can treat a letter as a write petition and take action upon it. But, it is not every letter which may be treated as a writ petition by the court. The court would be justified in treating the letter as a writ petition only in the following cases : It is only where the letter is addressed by an aggrieved person or a public spirited individual or a social action group for enforcement of the constitutional or the legal rights of a person, in custody or of a class or group of persons who, by reason of poverty, disability or socially or economically disadvantageous position, find it difficult to approach the court for redress.
Even though it is very much essential to curb the misuse and abuse of PIL, any move by the government to regulate the PIL results in widespread protests from those who are not aware of its abuse and equate any form of regulation with erosion of their fundamental rights, Under these circumstances, the Supreme Court of India is required to step in by incorporating safe-guards provided by the Civil Procedure Code in matters of stay orders / injunctions in the arena of PIL. In the landmark case of Raunaw International Limited v/s IVR Construction Ltd., Justice Sujata V. Manohar rightly enunciated that “when a stay order is obtained at the instance of a private party or even at the instance of a body litigating in public interest, any interim order which stops the project from proceeding further must provide for the reimbursement of costs to the public, in case ultimately the litigation started by such an individual or body fails”, In other words, the public must be compensated both for the delay in the implementation of the project and the cost escalation resulting from such delay.
Public interest litigants, all over the country, have not taken very kindly to such court decisions. They do fear that this will sound the death-knell of the ‘people-friendly’ concept of PIL. However, bona fide litigants of India have nothing to fear. only those PIL activists, who prefer to file frivolous complaints will have to pay compensation to the opposite parties. it is actually a welcome move because no one in the country can deny that even PIL activists should be responsible and accountable. it is also notable here that even the Consumers Protection Act, 1986 has been amended to provide compensation to opposite parties in cases of frivolous complaints made by the consumers. In any way, PIL now des require a complete rethink and restructuring. Over-use and abuse of the PILs can only make them stale and ineffectively Since it is an extraordinary remedy available at a cheaper cost to all citizens of the country, it ought not be used by all litigants as a substitute for ordinary ones or as a means to file frivolous complaints.
All said and done, it may be concluded that Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been an invaluable innovative judicial remedy It has translated the rhetoric of fundamental rights into living reality for at least some segments of our exploited and downtrodden humanity. Under trial prisoners languishing in jails for inordinately long periods, inmates of asylums and care-homes living in sub-human conditions, children working in hazardous occupations and similar disadvantaged sections.